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The Devil and Gordon Ramsay: Hell's Kitchen and Trickster Dynamics

I am ready for the reality TV craze to put its tail between its now-geriatric scrawny legs and scamper off. I admit over the years I have half-heartedly followed more than a couple. I don't even recall the names of several of them.

There was one in which three ridiculous twentysomething sisters got to pick a ridiculous wife for their ridiculous father. It was really terrible. There was another in which a woman got to choose a mate from a slew of guys, using her hopefully fabulous sense of 'gaydar'—as some of the men were gay. That was REALLY terrible—as a matter of fact, I believe only one episode aired.

There was another called Unan1mous that I was absolutely certain was a sham or some kind of nutty prank on the viewers—it seemed 100% scripted, false in every way, as if every contestant was acting—and badly. I thought it would end up being akin to the show Joe Schmo, a hilarious early 2000's reality-hey-day send up of the genre, in which actors portrayed ridiculous reality star stereotypes, all for the benefit of one unsuspecting contestant. But no, Unan1mous was real—for whatever the notion of “real” is worth within the world of television programming or reality show dynamics.

For me and for many people, I suspect, the reality show genre has been absolute stupid indulgent entertainment, that you can take or leave, and I usually leave it now—I've had my fill. However, there's one show that always hooks me in every season—Hell's Kitchen. I don't love it. So why do I watch it?

It's pretty much the same show every time, the same season over and over; some kind of witless Eternal Return acted out by poorly conceived social archetypes—bitches, nutters, sad sacks, underdogs, and ne'er-do-wells, hoity- toities, nice mommies, princesses, freaks and slackers. Chef Gordon Ramsay flipping out. Humiliated people being forced to touch piece of raw Beef Wellington. Overweight, sweaty people serving attitude along with their undercooked halibut and dirty lettuce butt-filled salads. And all that smoking. What is it, 1963?

I know smoking is part of the culture of restaurant industry, but the way it's portrayed and managed on this show is just overkill. Because of the political incorrectness of smoking, the filmic device of showing villains as smokers, and the carefully controlled engineering of contestant personas in reality shows, I can't help but think all the smoking means something. In the current season, there's a contestant named Autumn. She's being portrayed as a Miss Perfect. Watch her smoke. She handles that cigarette like…a nonsmoker.

I don't know what the intentional cigarette smoking means, but it fits right in with the fire/danger/damnation/execution theme hugely present in the imagery of the opening credits, commercial segues, and general imagery branding of the show.

Flames shoot up dramatically from grills and some kind of HK fire pit thing outside the restaurant right after a commercial break. The Hell's Kitchen ads feature a mean looking Ramsay against a backdrop of flames. There are also provocative, murderous images involving meat cleavers, pitchforks, and ominous sizzling. It's Hell. Got it. And Gordon Ramsay's the Devil.

But is it that simple? During the first few episodes this season, I've noticed some intriguing things that rather point to Trickster dynamics. Perhaps it is inevitable it go this way—FOX network that airs Hell's Kitchen is certainly the Trickster of network television, and many of its shows are fraught with classic Trickster characters as well, and/or feature liminal subject matter, such as: The Simpsons, The X-Files, FOX News, House, Fringe, Lie to Me, Sliders, Sightings, and Dollhouse.

Indeed, looking at the full list of Fox shows at Wikipedia, there are an overwhelming number which involve border and liminal oriented dynamics either in subject matter, certain characters, or even just within the words in the titles.

Also, FOX has aired some of the most outrageous of the reality shows (Joe Millionaire, The Simple Life, Temptation Island, Married by America) to air on television—which has Trickster qualities itself. As does the name FOX, a fox being the most Trickster like animal symbol. Present is that familiar reflexivity and self-reference, and Hell's Kitchen and Gordon Ramsay are emerging as key figures.

So far in this season of Hell's Kitchen, there's a sense of Ramsay's persona as very dual. On one hand, he's the foul-mouth hellfire-breathing worst boss in the world. On the other, he's a fun-loving family man. “Away from the kitchen, it's Gordon,” he tells one of the contestants from the winning team, who gets to accompany Ramsay and his angelic daughters and wife in a lighthearted game of soccer on the beach. After a commercial break, he's spewing his fury and throwing not-soft-enough risottos around the kitchen once again.

The point, along with fake interview interludes in which Ramsay is describing his purposeful tactics and motives, seems to involve revision, as it's almost apologetic in nature. It is perhaps at first a bit ironic, as it would seem that a Trickster would rely on the outrageous persona Ramsay's built up for himself, but this kind of character revision actually fits exactly in line with Trickster.

Trickster personalities are almost always superficially seen as evil or bad, but when explored more deeply, there's a sense of complexity, goodness, and reasoning behind their actions. This of course causes paradox, and propels the idea of Trickster even further.

With this developing in Hell's Kitchen, it's all very bipolar-feeling, and I think that's exactly what's going on—the Trickster floating between the poles of extremities. Another Trickster characteristic I've noticed in the show is the notion of shapeshifting. In at least this season and last, the first episodes have featured a prank involving disguise and unmasking.

Last season, Ramsay was dressed and disguised to look like another contestant. This season, it was Ramsay's wife that was disguised—as a contestant that was chosen first to have Ramsay taste and evaluate her signature dish. Ramsay liked the dish, and begins to make out with the wife, still in disguise, to the shock of the real contestants. It may have been the most awkward kiss in the history of television.

The last episode of the show in which the winner is chosen even employs a Trickster component. The two finalists stand behind a door at the top of a stairway, and the winner's door opens when the handle it turned, and the winner can then cross the boundary of the door, and descend the stairs.

It's clear the show is steeped in Trickster oriented ideas, and it will be interesting to see if they become overblown enough to be the final undoing of the series, or perhaps even inject some meaning into it. Alas, I'm guessing it's the former based on the way it's being handled so far. But, I'm still watching.

Sources and further reading:

Gordon Ramsay gives a passionate kiss to contestant on Hell's Kitchen USA, UK's Daily Mail

List of programs broadcast by FOX, Wikipedia

Contact Richelle Hawks

Visit Richelle's blog: Beamships Equal Love